By JACK HITT on Feb
The way Mark King tells the story, the idea came to him in an instant just three years ago, when he was a 21-year-old community-college dropout. Like the proverbial Edisonian light bulb, there it was: an organoleptic analyzer.
Mark King of Bellingham, Wash., says General Mills’ decision to have him develop a texture analyzer was life-changing. “I was going from making things out of Super Glue and bubble gum,” he says, “to making an analytical device for a multibillion-dollar company.”Credit Stuart Isett for The New York Times
That’s its technical name. To you, it’s a device that measures the texture of granola bars. Mr. King had seen a call for ideas on a website sponsored by General Mills, where the company invites amateur inventors to come up with fresh concepts. Mr. King typed out his organoleptic musings in an email and hit send. Soon, General Mills had him on a plane to Minneapolis, its corporate home.
Mr. King was a 17-year-old high school student when he developed a deep desire to be an inventor. His method was to “go to my coffee shop for hours” — specifically, Woods Coffee in Bellingham, Wash., where he still lives. He’d order a latte and type “inventor-friendly company” into Google. “I would make up an invention on the spot regarding their product line,” he said. “Then I would send it off to the company and pitch it.”
For instance, he came up with a new way to put fruit and yogurt into a cup. No luck. He came up with a way to make packaging biodegrade more quickly. Radio silence.
His innovative teenage peers were horsing around in the digital playground, looking to create the next social medium or crowdsourcing technique. But Mr. King, with his thick blond hair and a wholesome 4-H grin set off by some Ryan Gosling stubble, seems happily old school. For inspiration, he stared into the family larder.
Despite years of no, Mr. King persevered — a textbook case of what innovation lecturers like to call stick-to-it-tive-ness. This trait is now analyzed and dissected in business schools, and, if the empiricism is to be trusted, what appears to undergird this necessary characteristic is an uncanny inability to become frustrated.
So Mr. King was thrilled when he found G-WIN, or the General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network page, in 2011. The site has received thousands of ideas from inventors since it went up in 2009, but considers somewhere “less than 10 percent” for use at the company. It was on that website that he read of a need for “a quantitative method of analyzing the texture of a chewy granola bar to assess differences in bar texture.”
In the science of food, texture is big doings. Already on the market are devices, resembling drill presses, that carefully push a metal plate onto a sampling of food, yielding a texture measurement that in some cases is broken down into subtextures: “chewiness, gumminess, cohesiveness and firmness,” according to one description. Even tofu, which might seem like the null set, texture-wise, can be gauged this way.
The precise design of Mr. King’s breakthrough is now a trade secret. General Mills is pursuing a patent, and Mr. King was cautious about discussing the mechanical specifics. “I signed an agreement,” he said nervously, “that was as thick as my thumb.”
But he described his thinking process — one that caused him nothing but trouble in school but also partly explained how a vision of a granola-texture testing machine might spring forth spontaneously in his brain. “I never really got good grades in school because I have always been a daydreamer and I can’t read all that well,” he confessed. Instead, he built things — like anelectric car to drive himself to high school so he could get one of the prime parking spaces for green vehicles.
Then he enrolled in a local machining school that offered a degree in C.N.C., or computer numerical control technology. Essentially, that’s precision metal-cutting. He built a one-cup, polished-metal French press; it was cool-looking and provided a valuable lesson in thermodynamics. Pour coffee in a sleek, handle-less metal cylinder, he said, and “the whole thing turned as hot as the coffee itself, so I couldn’t even pick the thing up.”
In creating and observing these three-dimensional objects, Mr. King said he realized that he had a different kind of memory. “Any mechanical thing that I have ever seen, I remember,” he said. “And I can take an idea and add something that I had seen before, like five years ago. I can add something to it, subtract something, flatten it out, expand a part and then add something else on, and I can do it in a second.”
He began compiling this internal library of mechanical operations at an early age, when he smashed open his Sonic the Hedgehog remote-controlled car. He later developed a compression sack for camping gear — an accordionlike bag with a small negative pressure pump that compressed the bag into a dense brick. At age 17, he applied for a patent on the sack but, after entering college, did not complete the patent process.
When he saw what General Mills was looking for in a granola-bar texture machine, “I took a ton of different ideas and ran them through my mind, and then I just came onto this one that I saw was kind of interesting,” he said. He wrote down a description and sent it in.
“Then I got an email, and they said the idea was awesome,” he recalled. “They said, ‘O.K., call this number at this time, and use this code, and then you’ll be calling into a teleconference.’ ” Imagine. “It was like a James Bond scenario.”
After sending a more elaborate computer design to the company, he heard back at once: He would get $250 an hour to build a prototype. “I was outside myself,” he said. “I was going from making things out of Super Glue and bubble gum to making an analytical device for a multibillion-dollar company.”
Mr. King spent the next six months cutting the metal parts. He made about $18,500 in consulting fees. Mr. King and his prototype were flown to Minneapolis, where they went to a big General Mills plant. “I swear I could see the curvature in the Earth — this was a huge building,” he said.
Inside, he said, he was shown “Nature Valley granola bars, granola bars that had not been released yet, granola bars that they only sell in Mexico, and all of the granola bars that they sell in every corner of the world.” He was invited to select any test bar he wanted.
“We went out into this texture analysis lab and saw the machine and it worked,” he said. “We all just were high-fiving.”
General Mills continues to use the prototype he built, according to Mike Helser, who leads G-WIN. With his General Mills earnings, Mr. King has built a small manufacturing studio of his own and moved on.
He financed his newest idea — a digital-theft-proof wallet — with a Kickstarter campaign. He asked for $5,000 and received $44,312. He started a small business called Trayvax to make them. “I have one employee,” he said, “which is awesome.”
Still, each success seems to happen only after another season of failure. “My Kickstarter money has pretty much run out, because of how many mistakes I’ve made,” Mr. King acknowledged, “but I’ve had to kind of pick myself back up and learn from them, and keep on pushing forward.”
Not long ago, he saw the movie “Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead,” which celebrated the nutritional pleasures of vegetable juices. But many juicers can be a big mess. So he came up with the idea for a small device that blends vegetables right in the cup and is easy to clean. “I designed a portable juicer that I thought would sell well,” he said. “Now it’s just a matter of learning about injection molding.”